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(DV) Birns: A New Perspective on the Berenson Case







Lori Through the Looking Glass:
A New Perspective On the Berenson Case

by Nicholas Birns
September 29, 2005

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Our perception of Lori Berenson has been clouded by a bewildering recent series of rulings and counter-findings surrounding her case. Lori Berenson has been imprisoned in Peru for almost ten years for allegedly conspiring with terrorists. (The grim anniversary of her imprisonment is upcoming in November). New challenges and complications in the Andean region and its neighbors have only exacerbated the situation.

In his Second Inaugural Address, President Bush strongly endorsed liberal-humanitarian interventionism, saying: “The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.” Yet the reach of this rhetorical vision of freedom is not meant to stretch to every corner of the globe. In spite of this shortcoming, we must reanimate our awareness of the Berenson case, placing it in the new context of the Bush administration’s worldwide proactive democratic aspirations. This article will illuminate why this case is so important to any reexamination of the values of American foreign policy.

Lori Berenson went to Peru in 1994 when she was 25. In late 1995, she was arrested on a public bus in Lima and charged with ‘treason’ for being a leader of a terrorist group. She has been in jail ever since. The outside world has managed to pay only limited attention (it occasioned a meager squib in the New York Times) to the case. The November 25, 2004 ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has been seen as just another setback in her fate. It is far more than that. It is a subversion of due process and of the course of international law. From all evidence, at the time there was a good possibility that the Inter-American Court would rule in Lori's favor and against the government of Alejandro Toledo, Peru's notoriously unpopular current President. Such a ruling inevitably would have built up international pressure and started a chain reaction that Peru would eventually have to take into account. Had the court ruled the way it was apparently going to rule, Berenson's release could have been managed in a way that would have assuaged Peruvian nationalists, and allowed Lima to explain to its purported domestic political base why it had to let the gringa go. Berenson would have been released without undue embarrassment any of the concerned parties.

Instead, the Toledo government went in another direction. Anticipating that the Inter-American Court decision would go against it, Peru threatened to ignore the ruling and even (not for the first time) pull out of the Inter-American Court if a negative decision was rendered. In a far milder, yet withal similar, analogue to North Korea’s lack of cooperation with the IAEA because it did not want its nuclear program to be placed under supervision, such defiance subverts the entire structure of cooperation among sovereign states.

A Court’s Good Name

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has been one of the great success stories of international law. When it began operation in 1979, most Latin American countries were under authoritarian rule. The Court’s function was primarily to assuage outside concern over human rights violations in Latin America. But, thanks to a series of diligent jurists, the institution carved out a well-regarded reputation for itself. Indeed, it became partially responsible for the growing respect for democratic norms in the hemisphere. This was so even though Court rules allows for a judge from a given country to sit in any case involving that country, regardless of whether it happens to already have a judge currently serving on the seven-member OAS-selected bench.

Admittedly, the Peruvian judge on the bench, Diego Garcia Sayan, did recuse himself because he had once been Justice Minister and had at that time been involved in the Berenson case. Nevertheless, formal and informal Peruvian pressure has subverted the Court’s traditional adjudicatory processes. As the Court was preparing for its final deliberations, Chilean judge Cecilia Medina Quiroga authored an opinion on behalf of the Court based on previous discussions. This decision upheld the earlier ruling by its associated body, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which allegedly called for Lori’s release. But Monroy Galvez, the Peruvian ad hoc judge replacing Garcia Sayan for this case only, obtained a draft of the Court’s preliminary decision on November 10. The explosive information contained therein was almost immediately leaked to Peruvian government officials who immediately turned it over to media outlets, and a storm ensued.

To And Fro

From Lima, Peru’s justice minister told the Inter-American Court that it must show respect for the rights and tranquility of the Peruvian people over that of Lori Berenson when it makes its decision. Separately, the president of Peru’s Congress, Antero Flores Araoz, wrote to the Inter-American Court emphasizing that Lori should not be freed. A number of members of Peru’s Congress signed a letter addressed to the Court urging it rule against Lori. Even the respected members of the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission sent the Court an amicus curiae incomprehensibly opining that Lori should not be freed and Peru not be compelled to give her another trial. This same Peruvian commission had incongruously, in its August 30, 2003 official report, stated that the Fujimori anti-terrorism laws, under which Berenson was initially tried by hooded military judges with purportedly no legal training, were illegal and that they must be brought into compliance with international standards. Even Berenson’s second trial, in which certain charges were dropped and her sentence reduced, was held under Fujimori-era laws. This commission further had found that the January – February 2003 revisions to these anti-terrorism laws, made more than a year after Lori Berenson’s second trial, while representing a major improvement, did not yet go far enough and were still in need of compliance with the American Convention on Human Rights.

Through the middle to later part of November, Peruvian politicians and the press repeatedly stirred the public, saying that a favorable ruling for Berenson would result in automatic changes in the Peruvian justice system that would then enable the release of hundreds of dangerous Shining Path and Tupac Amaru terrorists. Letters to that effect were also sent to the Inter-American Court. Yet during this same period, the court also tried the case of a pediatrician who already had served a sentence for terrorism, was released, and then was years later rearrested after performing hand surgery on a known terrorist. The medical doctor was again acquitted by a unanimous vote of the Court, with no demurral from the Peruvian government or media.

Though Lima has denied applying pressure on the Inter-American Court in Lori Berenson’s case, and has insisted that the decision was fair and impartial, these two solid weeks of Peruvian “lobbying” involving complaints, protests and threats to the Inter-American Court system surely had an impact. At this point, Peru’s top government officials than got into the act. Foreign Minister Manual Rodriguez Cuadros declared that Peru would ignore any Inter-American Court decision favoring Lori Berenson’s release. This was followed by similar statements from the Justice Minister, the president of the Congress, the Prime Minister, and President Toledo himself.

Fox News, Lima Style

The Peruvian public sphere is saturated with a raucous dissonance over terrorism, in which any revolutionary group, such as the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement with which Lori sympathized and with whose members she is alleged to have consorted, is equated with the vicious Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) movement led by Abimael Guzman, a movement that is unquestionably terrorist. Much like the Murdoch press in the English-speaking world, this media pressure is capable of convulsing sentiment among average Peruvians. Peru is an example of the global reach of the New Right, which has so relentlessly commandeered not only formal control over much of the media but also is affecting what is communicated by the media not just in the U.S. and other English-speaking countries, but, increasingly, in Spanish and French. Starting with Fujimori, no step was barred in informing the Peruvian public opinion against Berenson, seeking to invoke nationalist sentiments against her and those defending her, by accusing them of wanting special privileges for her and dishonoring all of those who suffered at the hand of the guerrillas over years of guerilla warfare.

There is a whole class of “Senderologists”, media pundits on terrorism such as the sociologist Raul Gonzalez, who equates any remotely revolutionary movement with the Shining Path, and insists that Peru will not be pushed around by gringo pressure to give privileged treatment to a U.S. citizen. The voices of these jingoistic Senderologists have assumed almost a semi-governmental amplitude irrespective of their outrage if they were so accused. There is some reason to believe that the Inter-American Court judges were undoubtedly infected by this media pressure, which in turn tainted their deliberative process. In openly declaring that it would not be prepared to honor the decision of the Inter-American Court if it ruled against Peru, Lima was able to use the global nexus of information much to its advantage, as the pronouncements in the Peruvian press were very much audible in Costa Rica where the Court is headquartered. Peru made clear, point blank, that it would simply not respect the Court’s ruling if it turned out to be negative. This current attitude totally conflicted with earlier comments by Peruvian officials when they were more into a public relations phase. For instance, on July 16, 2002, at a press conference in Washington, then-Minister of Justice Fernando Olivera made crystal clear to the press corps that Peru would comply with a court ruling ordering Lori’s release. “Why shouldn't we?” he said. “We are a civilized people.”

Against the hopes and expectations of so many, in November 2004 the Court caused consternation among its greatest defenders, by deferring to the pressure of the Peruvian government. Consequently, Lori Berenson became the victim of an institution that should have been her protector.

Peru -- A Dream Deferred

For most Americans, Peru is a land of mountains, llamas, Andean panpipe music, and ancient indigenous cultures. But postmodern Peru has had an equally intricate history, one subject to rapid changes and convulsions. During her Senate confirmation hearings on January 18, 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described Latin American society as “socially stratified” and noted that the Untied States must pay more attention to the indigenous and mixed-race population in these countries, not just urbane, Europeanized elites. This template certainly applies to Peru, a country that deserves credit for having sustained mock democratic institutions since the end of military rule in 1980. Over the past twenty years, no government has more disappointed its would-be political deliverers than Peru.

In 1985, the young, Kennedyesque Alan Garcia of the APRA party became President. This was a long-delayed entry into the Promised Land for a leftist party that had been in opposition for half a century. Yet, due to the weakness of its economic program and by ignoring the onset of hyperinflation, the Garcia administration eventually imploded. Peru then witnessed another social democratic messiah, Alberto Fujimori, the first person of Asian descent to lead a non-Asian state in the modern era, who defeated another would-be savior, the conservative novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. There were initially great hopes for Fujimori, even though he dissolved Peru's Congress in the spring of 1992 in an autogolpe or ‘self-coup’. Many were duped into believing that Fujimori delivered on these hopes by defeating the Sendero Luminoso and attaining world celebrity status during the siege of the Japanese Ambassador’s residence in Lima by Tupac Amaru guerrillas in 1996-7. But Fujimori eventually became loathed by Peruvians after revelations came out concerning his corruption and the startling magnitude of his human rights violations. Fujimori was also tarnished by the vast, shadowy power exercised by his henchman, Vladimiro Montesinos. At the very least, narcotized by its own alarmist rhetoric in the “war on drugs,” U.S. officials easily came to overlook Montesinos's unsavory character and to treat him as a fellow anti-drug legionnaire even though then DEA General Barry McCaffrey protested at the time of his being linked to Montesinos, claiming that he was only meeting with his designated opposite number in Peru, not someone he particularly admired.

In a nimble dual role epitomizing the dark ‘synergies’ possible in Peruvian society, at the time that Berenson was being victimized by his confederates, Montesinos was not only the country’s premier death squad leader and torturer, but its major media magnate. At one time, he controlled as many as five of Peru's television channels, and although he and his henchman have been officially purged, the climate of opinion they fostered still prevails and is one of the spawning grounds for the “Senderologists.” Montesinos was arrested in Venezuela in 2001 and is now in jail at the Callao Naval Base, ironically with some of the guerrilla leaders whose capture was Fujimori's great boast. In 2000, Fujimori fled the country in disgrace and was impeached by Peru's Congress. His voice has not been silenced, though, as he still undertakes moralistic radio broadcasts to Lima from his reclaimed ancestral home of Japan, where he yearns for a political comeback.

Cast of Characters

Fujimori’s eventual successor, former World Bank economist Alejandro Toledo, rose to power on the basis of his backing from fellow members of Peru’s indigenous population along with his anti-Fujimori platform, with a dash of interest added by Toledo’s Belgian-born anthropologist wife, Eliane Karp. But once in office, Toledo all too quickly lost popularity, and is currently hovering around 14% in the polls, with his popularity in danger of worsening after the sudden and dramatic mass purging of his cabinet on August 11, 2005. The particular opposition against him among labor unions opposed to Toledo’s sponsorship of the Andean Pact is underscored by his opponents. This pact would put Peru into a free trade zone with, among others, the U.S., as well as increasingly virulent activism on the part of indigenous peoples (the group that brought down Gonzalo Sánchez Lozada and, eventually, Carlos Mesa in Bolivia). In response, the continued detention of Lori Berenson is being used by Toledo as a cheap tactic to rally Peruvians to the flag as a life raft. Given Toledo’s foundering presidency, Lori Berenson’s liberty is considered a readily available sacrifice in the cause of dealing with his desperate efforts to salvage a failed presidency.

As unlikely as it is that Fujimori could ever return to office in a literal sense, the vulnerability of the Toledo government, and the continued presence of Fujimori loyalists in Lima's corridors of power, show that Peru's officeholders do not feel confident in totally leaving behind any traces of the practices of the Fujimori era. Alejandro Toledo is less and less able to lead Peru. We may start to wonder who exactly is running the country now, even if Toledo manages to stagger through the remainder of his term. The next Peruvian Presidential elections are scheduled to be held on April 9, 2006. The favorites are two past occupants of the Casa de Gobierno, the no-longer-so-young Alan Garcia and Valentin Paniagua, who served as interim President after Fujimori’s ouster. That the Peruvian political system would produce little else than these retreads is itself a symptom of its growing crisis. Though both candidates have social democratic pedigrees, and although there was some positive movement in Lori’s case during Paniagua’s brief moment in power, who knows what pressures they will face to continue to imprison Lori Berenson in order to take a patriot stance against alleged threats over Berenson allegedly coming form the U.S. An even more drastic, and dire, retread would be Fujimori himself, who, discovering himself to be once again Peruvian, is agitating from his residence in Japan to be allowed to run in the election. This appalling possibility will in all likelihood not come about, as Fujimori is wanted not only on numerous arrest warrants issued by Peruvian authorities but also from Interpol. That the disgraced politician still has 35% support in the polls is sobering. If a Garcia comeback would resemble the failed candidacy of Hashemi Rafsanjani in the 2005 Iranian election, a Fujimori bid would be halfway between Rafsanjani and a revamped Saddam Hussein candidacy in Iraq.

There are alternatives to the retreads, two of them women candidates: Lourdes Flores, currently leading in the polls, and Beatriz Moreno, former Prime Minister. Flores, who is a rightist, could not be expected to be sympathetic to Lori. Other possibilities offer even less hope. Hernando de Soto, trumpeted worldwide by doctrinaire free market capitalists as providing the answer to Latin America’s economic stasis, is thinking of running, although as the past cases of Vargas Llosa and former UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar demonstrate, Peruvians, perhaps rightly, do not always embrace their world celebrities when they return home and seek political office. Whoever ends up winning in 2006 (and Toledo may fall before then, like his counterparts in Ecuador and Bolivia), will another administration simply keep Berenson’s situation as is, prolonging what is both an ordeal and a distraction? In an era when both Peru and the surrounding region are facing increasing upheaval, Berenson’s continued detention is an astonishing triumph of ideology over practical circumstance.

Activist or Terrorist?

This ideological triumph has, admittedly, been helped along by the poor public image that Lori Berenson has in Peru. For the Peruvian public, Lori is irretrievably colored by her January 1996 shouting in anger at a staged press conference three days prior to her being handed down a sentence to life in prison by a hooded “judge”, likely lacking a single day’s experience with the legal profession, while a hooded soldier held a gun to her head. But the reality behind these events is more complex.

Lori first became involved with Latin America issues in 1988, when she traveled to El Salvador to participate in a delegation of religious workers seeking reconciliation during that country’s brutal civil war. Following her second visit to El Salvador a year later, she met with key officials of the FMLN, the principal revolutionary group engaged in the decade-long civil war, and helped it, in a small way, in its transition to becoming a nonviolent opposition party. She briefly moved to Nicaragua right after the electoral defeat of the Sandinista regime and its replacement by the pro-American Chamorro government, to work with Salvadoran refugees. Her work was less insurrectionary than secretarial. She assisted, for instance, in computerizing the office of “Leonel Gonzalez,” a former guerrilla leader who had decided to participate in the democratic process. He now serves, under his real name, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, as a respected deputy in the Salvadoran legislative assembly. She did indeed participate in the bustle of left-wing political activity. But this should not have any bearing on her being accorded justice. Nor should her marriage to Anibal Apari Sanchez, a former fellow prisoner who is now studying law in Lima.

Where is the Eagle?

The Berenson case raises questions about when a government should intervene in protecting its citizens abroad. Are those who are unjustly imprisoned only to be advocated by their home government when they espouse mainstream political views? Does our country’s celebration of the diversity of opinion of its citizens halt when traveling to a foreign land? This is a humanitarian issue, as well as one of civic responsibility and the release of Lori Berenson would not, and should not, impel any endorsement, whether by the U.S. or Peruvian governments or the populations of those two countries, of Berenson's own specific political views, which, in the democratic systems of both the U.S. and Peru, she has a right to express.

The Peruvian government has not been able to muster more than circumstantial evidence that Lori was actually engaged in knowing cooperation with terrorism movements, nor have they gathered any reliable witnesses against her. A close examination of the Berenson case should make Americans read, with renewed concern, the small print on their passports, concerning what the Department of State will do for us if we get in trouble abroad. This especially becomes an issue since numerous young Americans continue to become involved in activities such as missionary work and the Peace Corps that promote social justice abroad. Lori has been robbed of so much that we all take for granted. This is not because she has committed any crime, but because, in effect, she has expressed the wrong political views in the wrong place at the wrong time. Does this country’s lack of concern about the detention of Lori Berenson, one of its citizens, send a message to the young people of America that it would be wiser to stay home and keep their heads down?

Why Berenson Matters

The Berenson case has lost some of the éclat it once had. New disasters and atrocities come up in the news. The protracted nature of Lori's imprisonment, which should be prompting outrage, has instead led people to treat it as being some distant memory. We need to realize that this case is not just about a grossly unfair punishment being meted out to a U.S. national abroad, but that the Peruvian government's course has placed in peril international institutions upon whose accountability we all rely. In addition, the Toledo government has also hurt its own reputation. While its human rights record is unquestionably far better than its predecessors, and the truth commission it set up has tried to come to terms with many past abuses, Lori’s detention in effect voids all this progress.

That world opinion is not more upset about this situation also sheds some light on the paradoxes inherent in the currently dominant concepts underlying of international affairs. Humanitarian intervention and the idea of what Kant called the jus gentium -- the law of nations -- is in fashion, and even self-proclaimed liberals have spoken of it in utopian terms. There also has been a considerable reaction against the glibness, insouciance, and unearned giddiness behind this utopian vision -- and also the way it may disguise an imperialist agenda beneath a humanitarian one. The genuine humanitarian motives that led Lori to work in El Salvador and then in Peru stand in laudable contrast to the appropriation of humanitarian language to burnish conventional projections worldwide of raw American power. In Bush-endorsed liberal humanitarianism, what seems to be an overly ambitious panacea also covers up a decidedly partial and self-serving agenda. Those who want America to sponsor democracy in such utopian terms in the Middle East have been silent about how seriously compromised democracy still is in our own “backyard”. After coming into office in 2001, declaring hemispheric relations a special priority, the Bush administration proceeded to neglect the Americas more than any other administration in memory. Although the idealism of the Good Neighbor Policy and the Alliance for Progress had flaws, putting the hemisphere on the back burner has jettisoned, not reoriented, this idealism.

For most of the period of Lori Berenson's detention, whether under the Fujimori or Toledo presidencies, we have had the leisure to look at the issue in the purely bilateral context of U.S.-Peruvian relations. But new developments in the Andean region and the adjacent northern tier of South American states have complicated this situation. The “Washington Consensus,” fostered by the IMF and wholly backed by the U.S. treasury, is increasingly being rejected by national electorates, as witnessed in the recent election of Tabare Vasquez to the Uruguayan Presidency. Colombia not only has to deal with its longtime drug and guerrilla problems but with a simmering border dispute with its increasingly assertive neighbor, Venezuela, itself emboldened by the recent arms sales to it by Brazil and the increasing economic interest shown in Venezuela, and in the region in general, by China. The presidents of two of Peru’s neighbors, Ecuador and Bolivia, have been forced to resign, and looming in Bolivia’s political future is Evo Morales, the former coca grower turned populist leader abhorred by the U.S. State Department. It is too early to style the region an arc of crisis, or some such incendiary epithet, but not too early to be concerned about loose ends that stand in the way of a renewed push for regional stability. Berenson's captivity is a minor irritant in a situation too unstable to risk its continued potential for aggravation. The Toledo administration has sought to keep the U.S. on board by promising cooperation on the war on drugs, a collaboration that last month led the U.S. Congress to increase Peru’s foreign aid appropriation levels by 26 million dollars over what President Bush had requested.

Ironically, one feels that Berenson’s only hope for release lies in the U.S. getting so unhappy about Chavez’s Venezuela, and, if he should manage to get into power, Morales’s Bolivia, that Washington might decide to solve the Berenson matter just to concentrate all its energies on the countries with regimes it loathes. Much like the Da’wa movement in Shi’a Islam, which was condemned by the U.S. up until the moment when Saddam Hussein was perceived as a greater threat, perhaps, if Chavez becomes even more of a bogeyman to Washington than he now is, or if there is a perception that Latin America is undergoing a quantum sea change that will tilt it decisively towards the left, the Berenson situation will suddenly ‘need’ to be resolved.

Topsy-Turvy Internationalism

Washington’s cynical rationale for conspiring to tacitly back the Peruvian government in its desire to keep Lori in jail uses rhetoric traditionally employed by the left. We are told that we have to respect Peru's national sovereignty. It is said that Lori should not receive special treatment because she is an American and that to undercut Peru's self-proclaimed war against terrorism would be to privilege our own antiterrorist struggle in a paternalistic way, demeaning Peru in the process. Peru’s emulation of leftist anti-American rhetoric of the 1970s is something that strangely does not bother the American right. Anti-American rhetoric that we would not tolerate from Pakistani madrassas is hailed as justified by the American right when it emanates from Peru. Can we imagine what would happen if Lori Berenson were held in prison by, say, Yemen, or for that matter Venezuela? Peru is exploiting Latin America's sense of grievance against United States hegemony to make the absurd contention that to release Lori would compromise the prosecution of Shining Path terrorists.

In a world reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, everything is topsy-turvy -- the Right has assumed the Left's self-righteousness without its compassion and the Toledo government is using nationalist as well as national security arguments to, ultimately, exculpate itself and its predecessors. We are similarly absorbing anti-American rhetoric from Peru that we would find unacceptable from Sudan, Syria, or North Korea. As a result, the Berenson case throughout its entire duration has been the premise for nonstop hostile rhetoric, transforming this left-wing American woman who has been locked up in a Peruvian dungeon into, ironically enough, an object of norteamericano guilt. This is all the more unjust when we consider that Lori Berenson has consistently refused to claim white privilege. For instance, the Berenson family believe Lori might be permitted to have a computer in jail if she asks for it (in order to pursue online distance education programs), but Lori will not ask for one because she does not believe she should have access to a privilege that other prisoners lack.

Lori Berenson realizes that a valuable portion of her life has been squandered in prison. But, admirably, she has refused to play into a narrative of ‘the distressed American abroad’ that might win her easy sympathy in the U.S. media but would fortify the myth of white exceptionalism which Lori’s generation, born in the wake of the achievements of the Civil Rights movement, must, if it is to be moral, reject. Lori wants to get out of prison, and is already thinking about what she might do when and if she is able to return to her home country. Lori’s stance may seem quixotic to many onlookers, but all it demonstrates is that she has convictions that, even if unusual ones, should deserve respect.

An American, Forgotten By America

On assuming the U.S. presidency for a second term in January 2005, President Bush highlighted “the moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right.” Bush said that “America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains, or that women welcome humiliation and servitude, or that any human being aspires to live at the mercy of bullies.”

Lori Berenson, an American woman, has been paraded as a trophy prisoner going on ten years. She has indeed been humiliated and forced to live at the mercy of bullies. We should not pretend that she prefers her chains, or that anyone else truly gains from her continuing imprisonment. Indeed, under the U.S. Code (22 USC § 1732), the President of the United States has the obligation, when any American is wrongfully deprived of their liberty by a foreign government, to “forthwith demand the release of such citizen.” Surely this injunction could have been fulfilled with greater diligence by both the Clinton presidency as well as that of Bush’s. Lori’s left-wing views should not lead those of other political persuasions to vindictively wish her a disproportionately long time in a foreign prison. Lori Berenson’s punishment clearly has been cruel and excessive, especially for a crime that claimed no victims, even if she had been involved as charged. In her first prison, at Yanamayo, the high-altitude climate was so harsh that even the Inter-American Court which ruled against Lori in the general case, insisted that it immediately be rebuilt and made habitable or not be used as a prison anymore. For a time, she was even in total isolation, akin to many American death row prisoners. Berenson’s conditions in her present jail in Cajamarca are better -- but not by much. She suffers from Reynaud’s syndrome, which affects the circulation of her hands and feet. She has also suffered from arthritis as well as eye and stomach problems.

Prisoner Berenson

For most of the duration of Lori’s imprisonment, her medical problems were merely inconveniences, taking a back seat to the fundamental injustice of her imprisonment. But when Lori’s father, Mark Berenson, recently visited Lori in prison, he noticed that a serious deterioration had taken place. According to medical documents received by the U.S. Embassy in Lima on July 18, 2005, she was diagnosed as having osteoarthritis of the spine -- a progressively degenerating condition. To attempt to stabilize the osteoarthritis, Lori was put in a back brace from the top of her chest over her shoulders to the base of her spine. According to her father, Lori says she looks “like Frankenstein walking around,” but the brace does maintain her posture so that her condition does not drastically worsen. But the real worry is that, while the condition can never improve, it can be kept stable so the hope is that this equipment will keep her condition from worsening for a long time. But, in a separate development, the swelling around her hands has increased to an extent that the Berenson family fears it may represent the setting of lupus erythematosus or some other debilitating autoimmune disease. The Peruvian government has traditionally made light of Lori’s medical conditions, wanting to minimize the humanitarian, rather than political, aspects of her imprisonment. Though the medical staff at Lori’s prison in Cajamarca has been attentive and professional, there is no surety that Lori’s physical health will not worsen as time goes on.

Berenson’s health is also imperiled by the way Peru’s media exploits her situation as a public spectacle. On her first visit to the Cajamarca hospital, she was treated without incident as an outpatient. But on her next visit, the press had somehow been tipped off and mobbed her, preventing her from getting a physical exam. The press then reported all sorts of lurid rumors, asserting not only that Berenson was pregnant, but that she had been impregnated by the prison commandant. This morbid fantasy of a carceral equivalent of the droit de seigneur is indicative of just how inordinately Berenson has been abused because of her gender and nationality. Over and above her imprisonment, Berenson has suffered through this sort of media maltreatment, which de facto assigns to Lori the same special status that the Peruvian Government insists it is denying her de jure. This is not simply being treated as a normal poisoner; it is grievous suffering.

Lori Berenson’s parents have also grievously suffered. Not only have they seen their daughter spend all the years of her young adulthood in jail, they have spent inconceivable amounts of money, effort, and time traveling to Peru to visit and support her as well as engage in a prodigious amount of diplomatic and networking activity on her behalf. Rhoda and Mark Berenson, originally professors of physics and statistics at New York-area public colleges, have amassed an extraordinary amount of knowledge about Peru. Indeed, they are now as expert on the country as most academic Peruvianists. The imprisonment of their daughter has changed their lives in profound ways. This tragedy has affected a middle-class, hard-working, and honorable American family. The Berensons were never rich, and have spent what money they have trying to free their daughter. When the Berenson case was in the headlines, as witnessed by coverage on The Today Show, Good Morning America, Oprah and elsewhere, it seemed that Middle America was about to champion the Berenson’s cause. But now all their hard work appears lost in the tumult of the current world situation. The most bitter memory they must endure is that in both the Clinton and Bush II administrations, maintaining diplomatic equilibrium with a problem South American nation was always more important than the fate of one young American.

Lori, the Left, and Freedom

The Bush administration has reaffirmed, as principle of state policy, the value of personal liberty worldwide. Lori Berenson has a right to this liberty as much as anyone. George W. Bush’s advocates see himself as a latter-day Teddy Roosevelt, promoting a global muscular idealism. But Roosevelt’s bravado, in telling us that the U.S. wanted “Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead” when the Sultan of Tangier was holding an expatriate American, is sorely lacking in this administration’s timorousness when it comes to the Berenson case. In this age of revived empire, are left-wing activists such as Lori Berenson the only permissible objects of anti-Americanism? This would be a strange paradox, and, in light of Berenson's continued detention, a cruel one. Will Lori Berenson still be in jail in 2010? Will there be further futile acts to a drama that has gone on too long?

* For More Information on the Lori Berenson Case and what you can do to help, visit: The Committee to Free Lori Berenson web site.

Nicholas Birns is Senior Researcher at The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA). He lives in New York City, where he teaches at the New School, edits Antipodes and writes frequently on cultural, literary and political matters. His book Understanding Anthony Powell appeared in 2004. He can be contacted at

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